Business & Brand Strategist
The face of business in Asia is changing faster than one can blink one’s eyes. Asian companies that used to be back-end workhorses, manufacturing consumer goods cheaply for Western companies, are slowly realising the benefits of branding. In a market where competition implies slashing prices on their unbranded products, Asian businesses are slowly becoming more attentive to the power of branding in capturing consumers and returning larger profits on their investments. Firms are realising that whereas they were wearing themselves down on razor-thin margins to compete with the next supplier, they could increase returns by investing in their brands.
This then is the shift in thinking that is pushing boardrooms in Asia towards creating strong brands to differentiate themselves and consequently realise greater profits. Branding is an investment that must be perceived as such and is required to deliver ROI and shareholder value like any other feasible business activity. Many Asian companies traditionally focused on asset-intensive industries. It has been demonstrated that the most profitable Asian companies focus on intangibles such as human capital, exploiting network effects, and creating synergies based on brands or reputation, rather than investing in tangible assets. Only a few Asian corporations have successfully built and sustained global brands with Asian roots. Mandarin Oriental is one of them – the firm has built a world-class hospitality brand based on Asian culture and service-orientation.
The brand history
Mandarin Oriental is one of the leading luxury hotel groups in the world and operates 41 luxury hotels in different countries across the globe. The hotel has over 10.000 rooms in 25 countries. It is one of the most iconic and well-managed hospitality brands from the Asian region. The Mandarin Oriental brand was started in 1963 in Hong Kong and was born out of collaboration between The Mandarin of Hong Kong and The Oriental of Thailand. Both these hotel brands were landmarks and had a reputation of offering excellent service. In 1985, these two hotels were merged into a single organisation and brand under the name Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
The brand equity
A strong brand is characterised by a unique brand promise (the customer focus) and an outstanding brand delivery (the organisational system and performance behind the promise). The modern brand-driven organisation is characterised by three distinct characteristics which set it apart from less brand-focused organisations: The right boardroom mindset toward and beliefs about branding
The right skill sets to build and manage brands
The right allocation of organisational and financial resources to achieve the various business objectives and build sustainable brand equity Mandarin Oriental has built its brand on service excellence with a stated mission to delight the customers. The core of the Mandarin brand is steeped in offering customers an unforgettable experience by blending local cultures, exotic art, lively ambience and breathtaking vacations. Every hotel under the group offers the unique oriental feel and ambience including the taste, smell and the friendly service.
The brand equity of Mandarin Oriental was built by creating a very strong and distinct personality in line with the organisation’s philosophy. The management team has ensured a continuous investment in all aspects of the brand to ensure consistent delivery of all the brand promises. The fact that Conde Nast Traveler several times has rated Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group the number one hotel in many categories is a testament to the hotel brand’s success of delivering Asian service - even in the Western world.
The Fan campaign
Mandarin Oriental has been running a consistent and long-term global advertising campaign based on top-notch celebrities endorsing the brand. It is not easy to get celebrity endorsement right. Before any brand signs on a celebrity, they should consider three main aspects:
Attractiveness of the celebrity: This principle states that an attractive endorser will have a positive impact on the endorsement. The endorser should be attractive to the target audience in certain aspects like physical appearance, intellectual capabilities, athletic competence, and lifestyle. It has been proved that an endorser that appears attractive as defined above has a grater chance of enhancing the memory of the brand that he/she endorses.
Credibility of the celebrity: This principle states that for any brand-celebrity collaboration to be successful, the personal credibility of the celebrity is crucial. Credibility is defined here as the celebrities’ perceived expertise and trustworthiness. As celebrity endorsements act as an external cue that enable consumers to sift through the tremendous brand clutter in the market, the credibility factor of the celebrity greatly influences the acceptance with consumers.
Meaning transfer between the celebrity and the brand: This principle states that the success of the brand-celebrity collaboration heavily depends on the compatibility between the brand and the celebrity in terms of identity, personality, positioning in the market vis-à-vis competitors, and lifestyle. Even though these three major principles must be adhered to by any successful brand, practically it might be difficult to find celebrities that satisfy all these three conditions. Depending on the nature of the brand and the kind of product being used, companies can selectively emphasise one factor over the other.
The global campaign, which launched in 2000, continues to gather exposure and attracts fans from around the world. The campaign connects the Mandarin Oriental’s well-recognised symbol – the fan - with international celebrities who regularly stay at the hotels and are true fans of the hotel brand.
In 2006, Mary McCartney was appointed as the official photographer of the Mandarin Oriental Group’s award-winning international advertising campaign, replacing the late Patrick Lichfield. Mary McCartney has established a strong reputation for portrait photography and advertising campaigns for luxury brands internationally. She has recently completed a new portrait for the Group, of renowned actor Sigourney Weaver.
The 18 current fans include Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Hooper, Liam Neeson, Darcey Bussell, Helen Mirren, Maggie Cheung, Vivienne Tam, Takada Kenzo, I M Pei, Bryan Ferry, Lance Armstrong, Michelle Yeoh, Jane Seymour, Jerry Hall, Vanessa Mae, Dame Edna Everage, Frederick Forsyth and David Tang.
Prior to Ms McCartney’s appointment, many of the current celebrities were photographed by world-famous photographer and British Royal, the late Patrick Lichfield, in a location of their choice which, for them, best represents the feeling of well-being. In appreciation of their support, the Mandarin Oriental Group makes a donation to each celebrity’s individual choice of charity.
The future for the Mandarin Oriental brand
Branding enhances shareholder value, it can become a catalyst for better leadership, enables a shared vision throughout the organisation, and can help to balance short- and long-term perspectives and performance.
The Mandarin Oriental has successfully demonstrated that strong Asian brands can be created and sustained on a global basis. As Peter Drucker said, the only two functions of any organisation are innovation and marketing. Irrespective how innovative a company is, how committed the employees are, and competent the top management is, unless the company connects with the customer, success will be elusive. The top management should constantly evaluate their strategic decision in the context of customer feedback and how the customers can help the company in co-creating value. Innovation is therefore a key factor to the future of the Mandarin Oriental brand.
Think of Singapore Airlines which is the leading global airline brand and one of the most profitable airlines. They decided on a fully branded product/service differentiation strategy from the very beginning. Innovation, best technology, genuine quality and excellent customer service were to become the major drivers of the Singapore Airlines brand. Competition is intensifying across Asia, and in the upper end of the hospitality sector. More and more Asian hotel groups such as Aman Resorts, Banyan Tree, Shangri-La and other brands expand successfully around the world. What will earn these hotels the loyalty of customers and sustained profitability is a sustained and consistent adherence to the brand promise of service and quality.
The strong brand equity of Mandarin Oriental is one of the most valuable assets for the company and its market position. The hotel is a leading business case from Asia demonstrating the importance of strategic branding, and Mandarin Oriental can easily serve as great inspiration for other Asian firms trying to build and manage their own brands.